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10 Key Takeaways from the Design Ops Conference 2019

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

Here is a summary of highlights from my attendance experience at the Design Ops 2019 conference. I wasn't able to attend all of the lectures because I was also volunteering, although I'm hoping to catch the ones I missed online later. Slides and images are not mine. Thanks to Rosenfeld media for hosting the event, and to all the wonderful presenters!

An excited cartoon and the text "All the Ops!"
Image from Dave Malouf's 2019 Design Ops presentation

1. Some things need outright ownership. Other things are better left free.

Amy Thibodeau, Shopify

Amy referenced the work of prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, who studied how indigenous populations maximize the space of shared land in a surprisingly efficient tacit manner that would be difficult to legislate as effectively in a bureaucratic system.

On the left is a picture of Eleanor Ostrom. On the right is her quote, "Bureaucrates sometimes do not have the correct information, while citizens and users of resources do."
Image from Amy Thibodeau's 2019 Design Ops presentation

She pointed out that the Pacific Garbage patch is an example of something in dire need of some clear ownership. Because it's not outrightly overseen by any country / person / org, and no one is held accountable for causing the problem, the garbage patch continues to grow. This is an example of something that needs clearly defined ownership.

On the left is a still image of plastic detritus hanging over a fish in the pacific garbage patch. The text "Process is often necessary" is overlaid on it. On the right are goats eating grass on communal land. The text over that says "And good things can happen in ambiguous spaces."
Image from Amy Thibodeau's 2019 Design Ops presentation

How this applies to Design Orgs: Notice areas where people naturally follow their interests and create wonderful things for each other. Leave these spaces open and unmanaged where they are finding optimal orchestration all on their own. Look to major items and problem areas for codification and oversight.

2. Shifting away from a heavy focus on NPS, into a longer term, bigger-picture view. There were also some funny examples of people [effectively] gaming their Net Promoter Scores.

Kristen Wisnewski, IBM

Focusing solely on NPS as a measurement of success has some problems. It’s easily gamed and a focus on it exclusively can result in short sighted, reactive solutioning [as pointed out in this recent article by Jared Spool]. By looking at more metrics holistically, a company can set its sights farther out, leading to more proactive and less reactive strategy.

Image from Kristin Wisnewski's 2019 Design Ops presentation

3. Measurements for Design Ops

Kirsten Skinner and Kamdyn Moore

These are some of the other things we can measure for Design Ops Effectiveness:

Image from Kirsten Skinner and Kamdyn Moore's 2019 Design Ops Presentation

4. Being the first people to push a culture of Design Leadership in an organization can make you feel a little crazy.

Carla Casariego & Sarah Spencer, Express Scripts

One of my favorite things about UX conferences that feeling of solidarity with people fighting the same fight as you. Carla and Sarah had great advice about protecting designers from errant requests, and to always have design stay two sprints ahead of engineering [or, I would argue, even more than that]. This gives the designers time for more visionary vs. solely metered out, reactive work [the kind that can typically happen in tight, Dev-led agile sprints].

5. Sometimes everyone hates what you're doing, even when you're right, and you just have to deal

Eniola Oluwole

Eniola’s talk was refreshing. He told an unusual conference story of a certain level of failure and shame. He did the right thing, but was made a bit of a pariah at his company for it. During the talk, I kept thinking about my English teacher's high school poster that read “What is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right”.

What was this terrible thing that Eniola tried to do? To create a unified design system for his large multi-national B2C company, where they already had content in 70+ languages and 20+ separate non-matching design guides and pattern sets, all for the same website.

Takeaway: Sometimes you just have to stay strong in the face of adversity.

Image from Eniola Oluwole's 2019 Design Ops presentation showing his planned timeline for Design System unificiation

6. Democratizing Research – This was my favorite one!

Marjorie Stainbeck and Kelsey Kingman, Fidelity

A few years ago, Fidelity had the average number of researchers per designer: 1 for every 8. But they were having a hard time keeping up with the usability testing requests coming from the design teams, causing a lot of the designers to go rogue and go live without usability testing.

Image of the "before" state; Marjorie Stainbeck and Kelsey Kingman's 2019 Design Ops presentation

The research team came up with a solution: they offered a two week intensive class in how to do usability testing to their [non-researcher] employees. Anyone who was interested could sign up for this How-To-Do-Usaibility-Testing class, giving UX and Product designers priority as there was a high level of interest. They capped it at 6 people per class to ensure they were able to pay close enough attention to each employee's learning journey. Additionally, graduates have an open line to the researchers for questions and requests for feedback/help.

Image from Marjorie Stainbeck and Kelsey Kingman's 2019 Design Ops presentation

Getting everyone involved in research worked great and they expanded the program at their company. It increased adoption and understanding of UX Research across the board. There were faster product launch times, and fewer rogue publications. A side bonus was how it enabled the UX Research team to undertake more long-term strategic research initiatives [longer term strategic planning seems to be a recurring theme at the conference this year]. The UXR team saw the percentage of their time devoted to strategic research go from a low 15% before the program began up to 56% a year after its implementation.

Image of the "after" state. From Marjorie Stainbeck and Kelsey Kingman's 2019 Design Ops presentation.

7. I really just wanted to show you this revised Desirability, Viability, Feasibility triad

Jamie Lopez and Caleb Schmidt, USAA

The compliance is real, y’all [my addition]. This is the first time I have seen the Desirability (Users), Viability (Business), and Feasibility (Technology) Venn diagram with a compliance category added. I guess it makes sense, especially in heavily regulated industries.

Image from Jamie Lopez and Caleb Schmidt's 2019 Design Ops presentation

8. Designing better in an agile space

Dave Malouf

“We need a new framework, one that emphasizes the topline—the creation of value—over bottomline fixation on resource optimization. We need a framework that accounts for supporting the projects, people, and practice of design over the groupings of pixels and management of components. This new framing is at the root of DesignOps framework”

Image from Dave Malouf's 2019 Design Ops presentation

9. A designer applied a skills framework to her diverse design team to better understand their skill sets

Saara Kamppari-Miller, Intel

This was the first time I had seen this neat ECD skills framework chart [which was building on last year's presentation from Jason Mesut, which was building on an earlier skills model]. Saara undertook this initiative after all of the different branches of design a Intel were merged into a single room. This included physical product design, UX Research, UX Design, UI Design, and presumably packaging design. The different design groups were having well tread, sometimes heated discussions over who had ownership of certain processes and words. Saara looked to the skills model chart as a source of resolution.

Personally I saw this problem as a common casualty of the open office trend. Maybe these different groups shouldn't be forced to work in the same, high noise / high distraction open work area. Back to Saara, seeing a facet of the problem as a lack of understanding/empathy for each other's common skills, processes, and gap areas. The team filled it out and compared their similarities and areas of overlap. Her initiative did result in some nice data candy, leading our team to want to try it out later.

Image from Saara Kamppari-Miller's 2019 Design Ops presentation

10. Org Design for Design Orgs 1 Day Workshop — It’s a little different than the book

Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner, consultants

Since Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner launched their well–known book, Org Design for Design Orgs, they have acted as consultants to many businesses and have refined their original advice in the book to accommodate their new observations in the field. This revised model gives designers more collective action and allows them to be more proactive than reactive. Not pictured: Designers shift between working together as a group and working with dev. on alternating week days. They also cycle sprints between long-term-strategic and day-to-day-maintenance projects.

Peter and Kristen want product designers to be UX Design and UX Research generalists [which is good news for me as a generalist]. I learned so much from this workshop, but here are a few of my favorite take aways:

A. Although they strongly recommend Product Designers be generalists who can do both research and design; Not every person has to have every skill. Think more Voltron and less Unicorns. It’s about how all the different team member's skills fit together, not about every single person on the team being a UXResearcher–InformationArchitect–UXDesigner–UIDesigner–GraphicIllustratorPixelPusher–WebDesigner–CopyWriter–Marketing–Coder. They mentioned that for each person they hire, they are looking for five skills (that mix and match well with the 20–something other skills their teams collectively possesses). Being that you can't list five skills as a job description, they settled for standard titles. They also advocate for including rank so it can be distinguished how many skills you have mastered and how much experience you have on the team.

Image from Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner 2019 Design Ops Workshop

B. This is their revised model of the full initial team. It has a head designer who works as well as manages [is a hands–on designer themselves], four product designers evenly split between UX and UI, who do their own research, one content strategist, and one communication designer.

Image from Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner 2019 Design Ops Workshop. PD = Product Designer (two UX and two UI), and HD = Head of Design

C. This is how the team scales, with the addition of a UX Researcher. Interestingly, this UX Research persons job is to teach everyone else how to research, and to coordinate research sessions in which the whole team is active. It’s not a silo.

Image from Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner 2019 Design Ops Workshop

D. Once the org gets bigger, it’s important to have a completely autonomous head of [UX] design. Even though they are structurally below the VP of product in this chart, they do not report to the VP of product. They have a direct line to the CEO [He drew a dotted line later. Which makes me wonder, why put them under VP of Product (marketing) at all?]

Image from Peter Merholz and Kristen Skinner 2019 Design Ops Workshop

E. Kristen and Peter gave us this worksheet to fill out. This displays the ideal distribution for your design team. The chart is not where you want your team to be, or the % of people with these titles, but the actual % of the people who are strongly filling these scale level roles on your team now.


That's it! Thanks for reading and again to the excellent presenters.


Bonus unexpected knowledge: More than half of the people attending the Design Ops conference raised their hands when asked if they are currently undergoing a corporate re–org. What is going on out there?

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